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Billion-Dollar Scam In a Bottle: Why Vitamins Could Be Useless—or Even Shorten Your Lifespan

The latest advice from the medical community? Don't take your vitamins.
 
 
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If you're like roughly half of your fellow Americans, you probably popped a multi this morning. As the slightly acrid taste lingered on your tongue, you felt good knowing that something so quick and easy would help safeguard your health.

Multivitamins are the most popular dietary supplement on Earth. But here’s the sobering reality: They may be simply useless—or worse.

For the last several years, a Mount Fuji of evidence has piled up to show that multivitamins don’t do much of anything for the health of the average person. Though less conclusive, a growing body of evidence suggests that they may even shorten your life. Unless you are taking vitamins to address a specific deficiency, malnutrition or illness, gulping down a multivitamin in hopes of preventing disease or cheating the Grim Reaper may be one of the most prevalent medical myths of our time.

Yet Americans aren’t getting the message. In fact, as the economy remains stagnant, we are taking more vitamins than ever in the hopes that we can avoid a costly doctor’s visit. However misguided our thinking, there’s one sure bet on vitamins: With annual sales of more than $20 billion, there are pots of money to be made for an industry that operates in the shadows —money so big that hedge funds are tripping over themselves to get in on the action.

The victim is not just your wallet. It might be your health.

A look at the science

As recently as 2002, the Journal of the American Medical Association recommended that "all adults take one multivitamin daily." Your doctor probably told you to take one, confident that her advice reflected the scientific consensus. Your friends or family members may nudge you to jump on the vitamin train, and share their favorite brands and doses.

But for the last several years, many doctors have begun to reverse their previous recommendations. Two gigantic studies have caused what Prevention magazine called a “sea change” in clinical thinking.

The first study, published by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality in 2006, combed through 63 randomized, controlled trials (the highest standard of research) on multivitamins. Turns out they did absolutely nothing to prevent cancer or heart disease in most people, with the exception of those in developing countries, where nutritional deficiencies are common. In a second paper, published in 2009, scientists at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center followed 160,000 postmenopausal women for about 10 years, and found that multivitamins did zilch to prevent cancer, heart disease and all causes of death, regardless of what the women were eating (See PDF here).

There’s more: In a 2010 study, a team of French researchers, who published their work in the International Journal of Epidemiology, tracked over 8,000 volunteers who took either a multivitiamin or a dummy pill every day for six years. Results? The vitamin-takers showed no improvement in health or well-being over the placebo group.

Jaakko Mursu, a nutritional scientist, was among those in the medical community who had grown skeptical of multivitamins. So he led a team of researchers to study the issue. Even he was shocked by what he found, which was published as the Iowa Women's Health Study: Older women who took multivitamins were 6 percent more likely to die than others. This was true even though the women taking the vitamins tended to have healthier lifestyles than those who didn't (calcium was the only vitamin or mineral associated with decreased risk).

Useless is one thing. But harmful? That's really turning conventional wisdom upside-down.